The news that former President Bill Clinton will keynote this year’s Democratic National Convention has been all the rage in the political world this week.
Thus begging this question: should we really be surprised?
It’s not as if Mr. Clinton vanished from the public stage since leaving office eleven (yes, eleven) years ago – the polar opposite of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, who welcomed surrendering the spotlight.
Be it being out and front for his Global Initiative, talking vegan with Ellen DeGeneres, or impishly weighing in on the latest political doings (deliberately doing so, one suspects, because it causes heartburn within the Obama White House – payback for Hillary’s defeat in 2008), America’s 41st president has operated with all the reclusiveness of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float. If Barack Obama can trace his maternal ancestry to America’s first African slave, Mr. Clinton surely must be linked to the Kardashians and a shared voyeur gene.
Moreover, this year’s Democratic confab isn’t Mr. Clinton’s first rodeo. You can find him speaking in prime time at each and every of the last seven Democratic National Conventions, dating back to that unfortunate longwinded stem-winder in 1988.
So no, the story here isn’t why Bill Clinton was tapped to deliver his party keynote. The politics and optics of it are pretty obvious: he’ll fire up the crowd and theoretically reach out to those disgruntled swing voters in the Midwest who re-elected Bubba in 1996, but presently aren’t so crazy about Obama (and probably won’t be that crazy about the timing of Mr. Clinton’s address, given that it’s up against the kickoff of the NFL seasonon the evening of September 5.
Bonus added: the media will add drama to Clinton’s appearance where it doesn’t exist, wondering if the former president will go off the reservation as he has in the past (rest assured Clinton won’t stray from the party line – he’s smarter and more disciplined than that).
The flip side of this story, which the media haven’t explored: what other choice did the Obama campaign have?
Assuming the President’s campaign wanted to stay outside the Beltway in its choice of keynote speaker, thus eliminating congressional Democrats, three names come to mind: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. However, Cuomo’s successes in Albany are a bad contrast to Obama’s failure to change Washington’s dysfunctional culture, O’Malley wants to bring Las Vegas to the Chesapeake Bay, and Patrick has likened other states’ anti-illegal immigration stances to “McCarthyism or Jim Crow”. In all, not the strongest of unity messengers.
Then again, does the speech or the speaker really matter all that much? Let’s take a quick look at recent Democratic keynoters (here’s a more exhaustive list dating back to 1900).
2008 – Mark Warner, centrist former governor of Virginia and a smart choice given the Obama campaign’s stated goal of turning the Old Dominion blue (which indeed occurred).
2004 – Barack Obama. ‘Nuf said.
2000 – Harold Ford Jr., former Tennessee congressman seen as a rising star (he didn’t rise; no one remembers the keynote – then again, do you remember Al Gore’s acceptance speech or his clinch with Tipper?).
1996 – Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh, pushed out of prime time by the likes of Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton.
1992 – A trifecta of Bill Bradley, Zell Miller and Barbara Jordan that served as apt backdrop to Clinton’s message of a more ideologically balanced Democratic Party.
1988 – Texas Gov. Ann Richards, who zinged then-Vice President George H.W. Bush (“Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth). The last laugh went to the Bushes: George W. unseating Richards six years after her keynote.
1984 – New York Gov. Mario Cuomo giving a keynote that had party activists wishing he was the nominee, not Walter Mondale.
1980 – Arizona Rep. Morris Udall delivering a characteristically witty speech (if you already knew this, then by all means put down the remote, turn off C-SPAN, and go outside and enjoy the great outdoors).
So what are the common threads here? For some (Obama, Cuomo) the keynotes were nationally televised channels to talk of a future presidential run. But for the others, the keynotes had little in the way of shelf life.
Where does Bill Clinton fit into this? Rest assured the former president will have good sound bites. But he’s also (too much so) a familiar face. Bet on him to speak straight to the middle class – with a side wager on whether he can get off the stage in less than 45 minutes (speaking of wagers: one wonders what the drop-off in live viewership will be versus previous years’ conventions, given the NFL simulcast and the advent of the DVR).
While we’re on the topics of keynoters, the Republicans face an interesting choice. If he’s not on the ticket, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seems a smart choice – big man, big crowd, fully capable of big theatrics. Or the GOP could showcase the very telegenic Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (ironically, it’s Brown’s opponent this fall, Democratic Elizabeth Warren, who may have been big-footed by Mr. Clinton).
Like their Democratic counterparts, the Republicans’ past keynoters run the gamut from feisty (the ex-Democrat Zell Miller in 2004) to statesmanlike (Colin Powell and John McCain in 2000) to forgettable (Susan Molinari in 1996, Tom Kean in 1988, U.S. Treasurer Katherine Ortega in 1984).
But in this campaign cycle, Republicans have the luxury of arguably better, ascending choices than their rival party. Be it delivering a good one-liner on Mitt Romney’s behalf, firing up the crowd, or putting a speaker on a fast track to national office, it could be a keynote worth noting.